By Scott Malone
BOSTON, Dec 18 (Reuters) - A Rhode Island judge ordered the
state and a group of unions into mediation to try to resolve a
lawsuit challenging a 2011 law that would cut union members'
pension benefits by about $4 billion over the next two decades.
The case is a widely watched one as cash-strapped U.S.
cities and states struggle to keep up with the costs of pension
plans for their workers and retirees. Collectively, they face
some $5 trillion in unfunded pension obligations, Rhode Island
attorneys said in court earlier this month.
State Superior Court Associate Justice Sarah Taft-Carter -
whom the state had tried to have removed from the case because
she is due to receive a pension - said on Tuesday the suit will
continue to move toward trial even as the two sides begin to
meet with federal mediators.
Unions representing police, firefighters, teachers and other
state employees sued Governor Lincoln Chafee and other state
officials, charging they violated a contract when they passed
the law that raised the age at which retirees can collect
pension benefits and shifted to a defined-contribution rather
than defined-benefit plan.
The state argued that the terms of its pension plan are not
a contract and that state legislators have the right to modify
the laws that dictate the terms.
Roger Boudreau, president of the American Federation of
Teachers' retiree chapter in the state, who also chairs a
6,000-plus-member coalition of retirees from other state unions,
welcomed the judge's move. He said the unions felt their voices
were not heard in the debate that led to the decision to cut
their pension benefits.
"It's at least an opportunity for both sides to explore
things in real terms that didn't occur but should have occurred
previously," Boudreau said.
Rhode Island General Treasurer Gina Raimondo defended the
changes to the pension system, saying they were necessary to
protect the program.
"It is important to let this process unfold in an orderly
and transparent way," Raimondo said in a statement. "We owe that
to the people of Rhode Island and to our public employees."
David Boies, an attorney known for representing former Vice
President Al Gore in the court case contesting the results of
the 2000 presidential election, is representing Rhode Island.
Attorneys for both sides are due back in court in Providence
on Feb. 1.
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